“I see photographs as visual testimonies,” says Brooklyn-based artist Deana Lawson. “Familial relationships, sexuality, and life cycles are repeated motifs. I’m also interested in black aesthetics and how that is described in a picture.” Lawson’s photographic works are highly staged, frequently take place within domestic settings, and depict black women, men, gender nonconforming individuals, and children whom she meets in her neighborhood; the American South; Jamaica; Haiti; and South Africa. Inspired by the family album, Lawson’s intimate and powerful images are true collaborations with her subjects, or as she has called them, her “family.” Her work questions and expounds upon the fraught tradition of portraiture and documentary-style photography, addressing the complexities of representation, notions of beauty, spirituality, and the multifaceted visions of black identity.

Lawson met mother and daughter pair, the subjects of Barbara and Mother, in a dollar store in Charleston, South Carolina. During their first encounter, the mother’s brown prosthetic limb, complete with polished toenails, fascinated Lawson. The artist explains, “Skin is so important in this work.” Here, the prosthetic foot resembles black skin, and in this image, both women are proud to present themselves and their space. The featured objects framing Barbara and her mother, including stereo equipment, a tape-patched wall, a fluted vase of artificial flowers, a Bible, a box fan: provide rich, though incomplete, autobiographical context of these women’s lives. In the midst of their belongings, Barbara stands closely behind her mother; both hold radiant expressions, their hands on their hips. At this particular vantage point, their bodies seem to merge, and their paralleling gestures reveal the loving relationship between the two women.

Barbara and Mother introduces a compelling artist to our collection, expanding the ICA’s robust photographic holdings and strength in portraiture. Lawson is in dialogue with artists in our collection examining black subjectivity and representation—particularly black women’s—such as LaToya Ruby Frazier, Ellen Gallagher, and Lorna Simpson.